Extent of forest preserve disorganization revealed in new report

October 12, 2011

(Flickr/diverevan)
The River Trail Nature Center, one part of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.

A new report released Wednesday details how disorganized the Cook County Forest Preserve is. Findings from the audit conducted by an independent agency show that preserve workers use outdated technology, often don't know who their supervisors are and haven't received formal performance evaluations in fifteen years. Superintendent Arnold Randall said he expected some of the findings and was pleased with many of the 118 recommendations made by the audit agency.

"A lot of what's in here is frankly not a surprise to us," said Forest Preserve District Superintendent Arnold Randall. "It frankly validated and gave us some data to look at, and will help us in how we approach rectifying it."

The report found some of the roughly 450 forest preserve employees don't have email account, and Randall said he believes other workers use their own equipment at work - everything from computers for office workers to shovels for those working the 67,800 acres the preserve covers. Randall said he saw a pager in the facillities and that the legal department relies entirely on fax machines and has no scanners.

"We're the forest preserve, so we don't need to be a university, but frankly technology helps and should help with communication," explained Randall.

Outside of technological problems, the report outlines the communication issues within the disorganized office; staff meetings are rare, and many employees were found doing the same tasks as their co-workers because they were unclear on their job descriptions.

However, according to the report, "The majority of employees are 'cautiously optimistic' about the immediate changes they have seen, but they continue to watch for sustained impact."

The forest preserve has had a controversial recent history; a report from an Inspector General's investigation cited inappropriate and some criminal activity earlier this year, that included allegations of workers drinking on the job and giving alcohol to minors, financial improprieties and employees having sex at work. When asked by a reporter Wednesday if the district was inherently "full of loafers," Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she was confident that changes in upper management had rectified those problems.

"I don't know how every single one of the 450 employees of the forest preserves got there, but I know we have a mission to accomplish, and we're going to try to work with the workforce we have to accomplish that mission," said Preckwinkle. "We have the workforce that we have, there are a lot of good and dedicated people there, we're going to try to do the best we can, and people who are not performing will no longer have jobs," she added.

Randall said he'd like to make new hires next budget cycle, but is unsure of what the cost will be for all the suggested improvements the preserve decides to take on.

"We work for the public, we work, frankly, in a wonderful place," said Randall. "The forest preserves are wonderful....I love them. I'm a true believer, and if people can't do well in that environment, then they should do something else."